When in Rome

When in Rome, do as the Romans. Or in this case Mexico. And then Mexicans. And that means speak Spanish. Except I can’t. Or I can? Not a lot, but is that the point? I’m lying in the dark at a hostel in Puebla as I write this, and I think I need to start at the beginning.

Growing up I think I was always interested in foreign languages. I fell in love with the fact that Tolkien had created not one, but two unique languages and I tried (and failed, and have since given up) to try to create my own. I attended Hebrew school, where mostly we learned prayers but I tried to learn to speak what I could. And I even studied Latin (briefly) in high school before discovering Latin textbooks are not adequate for homeschoolers. But I digress.

As did my interest in languages. I studied Hebrew a bit more before I went to Israel, but literally the day after I got back to the states, college started and I’ve been too busy to study Hebrew since.

I’ve always had an interest in learning German. Okay, maybe not always, but the Holocaust is the era of history I’m most fascinated by (for many varied reasons), and knowing German would open up a vast array of information about this period that would be unbelievably exciting. After all, consider the experience it must be to read Mein Kampft in it’s original language!

But again, I must digress.

Although only slightly, since a tangent is now in order: midway through my associate degree, a friend of mine actually provided me a way of learning German: he introduced me to the website Duolingo, a free language-learning program online.

But school. I did a few lessons and got no further.

Fast forward a few years and suddenly (okay, not so suddenly, but it makes for better storytelling), I’m dating a Spanish man and I’m flying to Mexico to meet him. So, by way of necessity on one hand and wanting to share his native language with him (as he shares mine with me), I’m reminded of Duolingo (which now has an app on my new iPhone) and instantly download it. I begin practicing immediately.

And I practice almost everyday before I fly to Mexico. In fact, I complete over one hundred lessons in Spanish.

And when I finally get to Mexico, I know nothing.

Maybe I pick up a few words here or there, but on the whole, the scant bit of vocabulary I’ve learned doesn’t serve me at all.

Through a series of fortuitous events, it happened upon me an opportunity to take an introductory course in Spanish this summer. So I did, and I passed with an A+, and now I feel ready to return to Mexico, speak the language, and do all sorts of cool things.

But when I finally get to Mexico, I know nothing.

At least, that’s how I feel. People talk so fast that by the time I know what to say, the conversation has already moved on. Or they suddenly use a word I don’t recognize, and even though I was following alright for a moment, I completely lose the whole thing. Or worst of all, I go to say something and realize I don’t know the words I’m trying to say–I’m thinking in the wrong tense or using a verb I don’t know yet or referring to an object I’ve never known before.

I’m inclined to call it a lexical gap, but that’s a separate thing entirely. It’s a knowledge gap, and I have no weapons to fight my way through it: I don’t know how to ask people to talk slower or repeat themselves, and though in theory I know how to say I don’t understand, I get so flustered in the moment I completely forget.

On the bright side, I now know how to identify allergens on packaged food, so I haven’t died yet. I can also almost ask if a dish at a restaurant has nuts in it, but I can’t always understand the response.

Now I know a single class won’t make anyone proficient in any language, and that wasn’t my goal at all. Instead I wanted a firm foundation upon which I can continue to build my Spanish skills even if I’m not fortunate enough to take additional classes in the future. And this, absolutely, I got on my class.

But what I didn’t gain was confidence. I can read Spanish well enough now to (mostly) read menus on my own and (sometimes) make it through museums while at least getting the general idea of what an exhibit is all about without it being explained to me. I can even write some pretty good Spanish Facebook statuses.

But I can’t speak the language.

Trust me, I know the words, but when it comes time to talk, I freeze up and forget things and my perfect pronunciation turns to wibbly, wobbly stammering. And then, if I make it that far, the responses almost always exceed my language capacity, forcing me to stare awkwardly at my boyfriend so he can translate for me.

I’m still learning, but more importantly, I’m building my confidence. My first full day here, we went to a restaurant for lunch and my boyfriend forced me to order for myself. In Spanish. And while he’s continued to do this 98 percent of the time, I still haven’t starved.

In fact, we were in the Cathedral today and I walked into their gift shop. I saw a small trinket thing that I thought might make a nice gift for someone in my family, so I asked how much it was, paid for it, and ended the transaction all on my own. It wasn’t much, but it’s a start.

I’ve got a long way to go and I have no idea how proficient in Spanish I’ll become, but for now I’m slowly building my skills and I certainly plan to continue doing so for as long as I can.

Who knows, someday maybe I’ll even post here in Spanish.

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